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Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Updated: July 17, 9:38 AM ET
The something pitch

By Paul Jackson
Special to Page 2

On July 5, 2005, in a game between his New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles, Randy Johnson -- flamethrower extraordinaire -- unexpectedly joined an admirably gutsy fraternity.

In the third inning, Johnson faced Sal Fasano of the Orioles. His catcher, John Flaherty, could not decide where to set up for the pitch, and Johnson, in a fit of remarkable whimsy, threw Fasano what The New York Times called an "eephus." Surprised (to say the least), Fasano nearly dropped his bat as the unusual offering reached the plate and was called a ball. The fearsome Big Unit actually smiled as Flaherty stood up and stretched out his hands in disbelief.

From a novice of such a pitch like Johnson, the eephus -- or blooper pitch -- gets little more than a rise out of the crowd and a chuckle from the batter on the receiving end. It was a different scenario when a master of this rare and bedeviling pitch threw it in the 1946 All-Star Game.

Rip Sewell
Rip Sewell didn't reach the majors for good until he was 31, but still won 143 games.

On July 9, 1946, pitcher Rip Sewell sat on the National League bench for the first seven innings of the All-Star Game, nursing a sore arm and watching his team fall behind 8-0. American League aces Bob Feller and Hal Newhouser dominated, hurling thumbnail versions of their signature work, and Ted Williams had knocked out a home run and driven in three. Before the top of the eighth, Sewell's manager for the day, the Cubs' Charlie Grimm, told the pitcher the next three outs would be his to get. "See if you can wake this crowd up with that pitch of yours," he told Sewell. Even as he warmed up, the hum in Fenway Park jumped an octave.

Three singles, two outs and another American League run later, Williams again stepped into the batter's box. Back from his first stint as a U.S. Marine Corps aviator during World War II, The Kid now faced Sewell, who had flourished against draft-depleted offenses after being declared unfit for military service. The matchup became an instant classic: the premier 4-F pitcher of the day against the greatest hitter of the age.

Williams knew the eephus was coming, but he urged Sewell to reconsider his strategy. "You're not going to throw me that damn pitch of yours, are you?" he called to Sewell. "I might!" Sewell hollered back. He did throw it on the first pitch, and Williams swung and missed. The Boston crowd applauded the Pittsburgh pitcher, who at this stage of his career was not surprised to find himself cheered by the enemy. The fans, he had learned, loved the spectacle more than they did any single man, no matter how talented.

After debuting with the Pirates in 1938, Sewell pitched serviceably in '39, his first full season. In 1940, he improved, going 16-5 with an ERA of 2.80. Even as Sewell enjoyed his run of success, the National League was figuring him out. The next year, Sewell lost more than he won, his ERA rose by almost a full point and he felt the lukewarm fingers of mediocrity tighten their grip. Events in Europe overshadowed his individual struggles; a draft and a looming war made the outlook for all able-bodied American men seem grim indeed. Displaying the craftiness that became his trademark, Sewell found a way to avoid conscription and irrelevance: He was shot.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the same day as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Sewell was on vacation, hunting deer near Ocala, Fla., when a companion accidentally deposited 14 pellets of buckshot into him. The shotgun blast, he told writer Elson Smith in "Blooper Man," "tore holes in me as big as marbles. My legs looked like screen doors." His right foot fared the worst, and doctors were unable to remove several pieces of shot. After four weeks of medical care, Sewell was released from the hospital and told to forget about baseball.

The accident put Sewell's career in jeopardy but guaranteed that he would not have to trade his jersey for battle fatigues like so many other players. Even during a world war, the American military took few chances evaluating a person's fitness for combat. Included among the conditions for exemption were astigmatism, partial hearing loss, significant depression and even flat feet. Sewell, with buckshot forever buried in one foot, received a swift disqualification. He was designated 4-F: "not acceptable for military service."

Against medical recommendations, Sewell boarded a train for California and training camp, carrying a bag full of bandages and instructions to scrupulously clean his wounds twice a day if he wished to keep his legs. Sewell kept his injuries a secret from everyone but the Pirates' trainer, who promised to keep the matter under wraps, so to speak, while his pitcher toiled through unprecedented pain.

Once he refined this delivery to protect his diminished right foot, Sewell was able to pitch, but his new mechanics took the zip out of a fastball and the bite out of a curve. To endure in the majors, he would require another weapon. The enterprising hurler peered deep into the Pitcher's Bag of Tricks and, in a forgotten crevice, half-covered in dust, found a pitch that made a virtue of mediocrity.

Rip Sewell
Sewell shows his grip for his infamous eephus pitch.

Sewell introduced the eephus in a spring exhibition game against the Detroit Tigers, who, incidentally, had traded him to Pittsburgh after six fruitless years in their minor league system. Dick Wakefield became the blooper's first victim.

Sewell gripped the ball at a seam with three fingers and tossed it home, the pitch rising as high as 25 feet at its apex. A successful effort topped out at just 50 mph but rotated with plenty of backspin, which, according to Sewell, was his secret sauce. The batter, who had no idea what was coming, had no chance. According to Sewell, as told to The Boston Globe in 1981, "[Wakefield] started to swing, he stopped, he started again, he stopped, and then he swung again and almost fell down when he missed." For men trained to lay off high fastballs, this was high comedy, and both benches took turns applauding Sewell and jeering Wakefield.

After the game, Pirates manager Frankie Frisch demanded to know what, exactly, his pitcher had thrown to Wakefield. Maurice Van Robays, an outfielder with the club, replied that Sewell had thrown an eephus. When asked to elaborate, Van Robays said, "'Eephus ain't nothing, and that's a nothing pitch." Because Sewell had no opinion on the moniker ("I don't name 'em, I just throw 'em"), eephus stuck, despite the Pittsburgh newspapers' early attempts to christen him the master of the "dipsy doodle."

One theory on the origin of Van Robays' nonsense word ties it to the Hebrew language, which does not have a numerical symbol for zero but does have a word for the concept: efes, which can also mean "nothing." Also consider the lexicon of tarot cards, where The Fool card is often numbered zero. Sewell may have looked foolish, lobbing rainbows toward professional batsmen, but it quickly became clear that he was dealing the zero not drawing it.

He threw his first regulation blooper on April 17, 1941, striking out Cubs center fielder Dom Dallessandro and stranding two runners. The startled hitter pointed his bat at Sewell, saying, "If this was a rifle, I'd shoot you right between the eyes." History did not record Sewell's response, but here's hoping the pitcher pointed to his right foot and said, "Get in line." The Cubs argued that the eephus was illegal, but Bill Klem, the National League's supervisor of umpires, declared it legal, which was the final word on the matter.

Before they realized how effective the eephus could be, many batters regarded the pitch as an illegitimate offering -- a hurled insult. St. Louis third baseman Whitey Kurowski made a point of spitting tobacco juice at the ball as it floated past him. In 1943, Reds shortstop Eddie Miller caught an eephus and fired it back at Sewell. Though that particular eephus never reached the catcher's mitt, the umpire called it a strike.

Casey Stengel, then manager of the Boston Braves, took particular umbrage at the pitch. He once sent a rookie up to bat with instructions to hit from a kneeling position if Sewell threw him the blooper. The rookie grounded out on a ball hit deep into the hole at short, and the shortstop said that had the batter been standing, he probably would have been safe.

Sewell won 17 games in 1942 and 21 in '43 to lead the National League that year. He won 21 again in '44, throwing 49 complete games in that two-year stretch. In 1943, he pitched 265 innings and gave up just six home runs. Most significant: the zero (there's that number again) home runs hit off Sewell's blooper in regular-season play throughout his entire career. "Eephus" might mean nothing, but against the long ball, it certainly was something.

Nonetheless, after Sewell retired, the pitch disappeared, only sporadically summoned back to service by pitchers who had surplus quantities of gall and little left to lose. During the 1980s, when Dave LaRoche, a formerly talented reliever, started leaking miles per hour from his fastball, he went to the eephus, which he renamed "LaLob." Like Sewell, LaRoche was stingy with his signature pitch, offering it less than once per inning. Also like Sewell, he took advantage of the fact that those who hit the fastball the hardest tended to hit the eephus the least.

On Sept. 9, 1981, LaRoche and the Yankees hosted the Milwaukee Brewers. In the sixth inning, Milwaukee center fielder Gorman Thomas stepped in with two outs and runners on second and third. Thomas -- famous for a Fu Manchu mustache and an all-or-nothing power stroke -- twice led the American League in home runs despite making steady progress toward a lifetime batting average of .225. At a mound conference, it was nearly decided that the right-handed slugger would be pitched around, but LaRoche somehow persuaded his manager, Bob Lemon, to let him bait Thomas with four "slow curves" out of the strike zone. If the slugger laid off, he could have his free pass.

Thomas, for his part, did not want to walk. He no doubt wanted a piece of Dave LaRoche and his mediocre stuff, and the reliever obliged, throwing Thomas the slowest pitch he'd ever seen. LaLob missed outside, ball one. Lemon -- who had never known a "slow curve" to rise out of view from the dugout -- blinked and rubbed his eyes. Thomas, who had a much better look, nonetheless could not believe it.

Ted Williams
Ted Williams hit .304 with four home runs in 46 career All-Star Game at-bats.

"Why me?" he asked catcher Barry Foote.

"Because you're you," Foote replied.

Assuming that LaRoche had had his little joke, Thomas crouched again, anticipating a legitimate offering. Along came a second LaLob. This time, Thomas swung, fouling it off for strike one.

As LaRoche got a new baseball, the Brewers slugger picked up on the strategy being used against him.

"He's gonna throw that $&*@!* thing again, isn't he?"

Foote replied truthfully that he had no idea what LaRoche might be thinking. On the next pitch, events took an even sharper turn toward the surreal. LaRoche threw another floater, and Thomas -- as unfamiliar with small ball as he was with daily shaving -- tried to bunt it.

To that point in the season, he had collected zero sacrifice bunts, and with two outs, even a successful sacrifice would have done no good. In any event, the bunt rolled foul, leaving Thomas down to one final strike.

As both contestants abandoned rational thinking, catcher Foote told himself to sit back and enjoy the show. And indeed, he could not have predicted LaRoche's next offering, a fastball, likely thrown out of sympathy. On the best pitch he'd see in the sequence, Thomas held up, taking it for a ball that put the count at 2-2. LaLob appeared again. The Brewers slugger took a final, mighty swing. He missed, and the grandiose flail spun him off his feet and onto the seat of his pants.

Thomas removed his batting helmet and tossed it up, taking a last cut and finally making good contact with something. The largest piece remaining was an ear flap, which he autographed and sent to LaRoche with compliments.

Hitting LaRoche's trick pitch became Thomas' mission. He insisted that the reliever throw him nothing else whenever their paths crossed on the diamond. If LaRoche did not honor the request, Thomas would not swing. The next season, when Stormin' Gorman finally hit one fair, a line drive over third base, the Milwaukee fans gave him a standing ovation.

Thomas' woes underscore the devious nature of the eephus, which turns a hitter's eyes and brain against him. When a moving object enters a person's field of view, the brain engages a process called "smooth pursuit" tracking, which allows the eyes to follow the target as it travels. Only a few species possess this useful adaptation, including our own extended family, the primates, and creatures belonging to the order mantodea, the praying mantises, which are among the most effective predators (ounce for ounce) in the world.

Objects moving vertically and horizontally give our smooth pursuit systems particular trouble, which is why a good rolling curveball can "freeze" a hitter. The indolent eephus is far more than a 12-6 curve: Coming in as much as two-thirds slower, with the rise and drop of a roller coaster, it gives a batter's front brain plenty of time to overthink. The advanced calculations pile up, throwing off his timing on other pitches in the at-bat as well as on the eephus itself.

When to throw an eephus matters as much as the quality of the pitch itself. Used improperly, a blooper can bring fame for all the wrong reasons. Yankees pitcher Orlando Hernandez offered one to then-Texas Ranger Alex Rodriguez in 2002. After watching Rodriguez take it for a ball, Hernandez decided to throw another, which was last seen rattling around the upper deck at Yankee Stadium.

Bill Lee and Tony Perez
Tony Perez slams his two-run homer in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series.

Even more famous is the "spaceball" blooper thrown by Red Sox pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series. With Boston leading 3-0 in the sixth inning and on the verge of its first championship since 1918, Lee decided to throw a third spaceball (he didn't throw it as high as Sewell's eephus pitch) to Cincinnati Reds first baseman Tony Perez after the slugger missed two in a row. Fool a Hall of Fame hitter once, shame on him. Fool him twice, you got lucky. Fool him three times, and you did better than Bill Lee. Perez gave the third spaceball a wallop that sent it soaring over the Green Monster. According to Lee, the ball is still traveling 33 years later. Two runs scored, and the rest is history. Lee's folly carries an important lesson for those pitchers who play the zero card: Beware the number three.

On that note, we return to the master practitioners, Rip Sewell and Ted Williams, facing off in the 1946 All-Star Game. Williams did not just miss the first blooper Sewell threw him, he missed it badly. Though not quite a Gorman Thomas-esque failure, the Splinter's off-balance flail emboldened Sewell, who threw a second blooper. Williams swung again, fouling it off. Fenway howled. The Kid looked out at the pitcher and shook his head pleadingly, to no avail. Over the din of the crowd, Sewell shouted:

"Here it comes again!"

In his biography, "My Turn at Bat," Williams recalled his pregame chat with Yankees catcher Bill Dickey. The Einstein of hitting, Williams wondered aloud whether it was even possible to hit Sewell's trick pitch for a home run. With little energy coming from the ball, the batter needed to supply the full power, and he didn't know whether a body possessed such wattage. Dickey wagered that a moving man could get the job done. "Advance on it a step or two," Dickey said. "Kind of run at it."

With two men on and a favorable count, Sewell threw a third eephus, one he later described as a "Sunday super-duper blooper." It fell with near-perfect accuracy, the ball tumbling down through the strike zone. As the pitch arrived, Williams charged, taking two quick steps out of the batter's box. He swung, connected and dumped the Sunday super-duper blooper into the right-field bullpen. Pandemonium erupted as Williams laughed his way around the bases. Though chuckling himself, Sewell was not impressed. "You only got it 'cause I told you it was coming!"

He got the next batter on a foul pop to record his third out, and the delirious crowd gave Sewell a standing ovation as he left the field, gracious in apparent defeat.

Here, though, we must refer to Major League Baseball Rules 6.03 and 6.06(a):

"A batter's legal position shall be with both feet within the batter's box."

and,

"A batter shall be called out for illegal action when he hits a ball with one or both feet on the ground entirely outside the batter's box."

That was some pitch Sewell found in that old bag of tricks: not a single home run allowed in regular-season play, just one given up in an All-Star Game -- to one of the game's greatest hitters -- and Williams might have cheated to get it.

Paul Jackson is a Chicago-based freelance writer who recently wrote about Cleveland's infamous 10-cent beer night for Page 2. You can reach him at pjacks2@gmail.com.